Blog­gers get Africa’s cuisines to the world

Times Colonist - - Life - AMELIA NIERENBERG

NGAPAROU, Sene­gal — In the quiet hours be­fore lunch, two women worked side by side in an airy kitchen. One, a chef, cleaned fresh red snap­per filets with a sharp knife. The other, a film­maker, pointed her cam­era into a large pot of sim­mer­ing veg­eta­bles.

“What would you say this is, low heat or medium?” Tuleka Prah asked, set­ting the cam­era aside.

Her pen poised over a lime green note­book, the 37-year-old Prah waited for the next step in the recipe for thiebou die­une, a tra­di­tional Sene­galese dish of spiced rice, ten­der veg­eta­bles and fish. She came to this West African na­tion to doc­u­ment its four most pop­u­lar dishes as part of My African Food Map, a blog and film ar­chive.

“Low heat,” said 38-year-old Touty Sarr, who runs the kitchen of a pop­u­lar café in Dakar. She turned to her daugh­ter, who was watch­ing her cook. “This one, if you put it on high, it would all get dry. That’s one of the se­crets.”

Sene­gal was Prah’s fifth desti­na­tion since her project be­gan in 2012. She hopes to show the care and skill that goes into African dishes, such as South Africa’s fried dough am­ag­winya and Kenya’s kachum­bari, an onion and to­mato salad.

“The idea, at its most ba­sic, is to present the food how peo­ple who love it would love it,” Prah said. “It’s like a data­base or a dig­i­tal vault where peo­ple can open the drawer, see recipes, see some in­gre­di­ents.”

Born in Eng­land to a Ghana­ian fa­ther and a South African mother, she lived in six African coun­tries dur­ing her child­hood, in­clud­ing Namibia, Kenya and what is now South Su­dan. Af­ter find­ing no re­li­able recipes on­line for Ghana­ian dishes — and no pho­tos that made the beloved food look ap­pe­tiz­ing — she started My African Food Map.

She cel­e­brates the cuisines of a con­ti­nent of­ten marred by neg­a­tive stereo­types.

“Africa is of­ten as­so­ci­ated with poverty, with hunger, with fail­ures of food in a po­lit­i­cal and nu­tri­tional sense,” said James C. Mc­Cann, chair of the his­tory de­part­ment at Bos­ton Univer­sity and a spe­cial­ist in African en­vi­ron­men­tal his­tory and cui­sine. “It’s an area of the world that has not been cov­ered by the food craze.”

Other culi­nary his­to­ri­ans, chefs, and food­ies are fight­ing such stereo­types. Some, such as au­thor and pro­fes­sor Jes­sica Har­ris, have stud­ied African and di­as­pora cui­sine, ex­plor­ing the roots of foods taken far from home by slav­ery. Oth­ers, such as Fran Osseo-Asare and her Ghana­ian­fo­cused project Be­tumi, in­ves­ti­gate the foods of a sin­gle coun­try.

“The in­ter­net was the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of African food writ­ing,” said Osseo-Asare, who said she has blogged about African food since the 1980s. “When the in­ter­net came, you didn’t have pub­lish­ers as gate­keep­ers that could stop you from get­ting your work out.”

Unique among prom­i­nent blog­gers, Prah takes an al­most panAfrican ap­proach.

“I al­ways feel like I am from the whole con­ti­nent,” she said. “I can find my­self in dif­fer­ent as­pects of dif­fer­ent coun­tries I visit.”

Her videos of­ten have tens of thou­sands of views, and she dreams of do­ing her project full­time, as An­thony Bour­dain did. She said she has had no luck find­ing spon­sors, but in­tends to keep try­ing.

“The best out­come is when peo­ple say: ‘That is our food, that is our dish,’ ” she said, re­mem­ber­ing her work in Kenya. “I was ex­tremely happy when the first com­ments I got on YouTube were: ‘Oh, this re­minds me of home.’ ”

To find authen­tic recipes and skilled chefs, Prah asks ev­ery­one she meets in a coun­try — hosts, cab driv­ers, shop keep­ers and strangers — about their favourite foods. She met Sarr this way, through friends of friends.

“I learned from my grandma. I used to fol­low her ev­ery­where,” said Sarr, who wears her stiff white chef’s uni­form ev­ery time she cooks, even at home, be­cause it makes her feel more pro­fes­sional. “And our grand­mas, they think that tak­ing time with the food gives it more flavour. So I take time, too.”

She said she be­came a chef af­ter money ran out to pur­sue her dream of be­ing a doc­tor.

“There are a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween cook­ing and medicine,” she said, skin­ning onions. “The feel­ing of be­ing full af­ter you have eaten is the same sen­sa­tion as get­ting bet­ter af­ter be­ing sick. It’s some­thing that gives me a lot of pride.”

She dropped gar­lic into siz­zling oil, then stepped back as Prah moved close to the pot to film. The two women or­bited each other, artists col­lab­o­rat­ing over the pot bur­bling on the stove.

Sarr said she cooks by smell, by sound and by taste, but Prah wrote her steps down in or­der, record­ing a recipe for oth­ers with­out the guid­ance of grand­moth­ers and moth­ers at their side.

Af­ter two hours of chop­ping and pound­ing, scrap­ing and whip­ping, boil­ing and sim­mer­ing, Sarr spread red-tinted rice across a plat­ter al­most two feet wide. She flat­tened it and care­fully ar­ranged the veg­eta­bles and fish in a cir­cle for a com­mu­nal meal, with some fam­ily mem­bers eat­ing with spoons and oth­ers with their hands.

Prah snapped a picture, and then an­other, be­fore putting her cam­era aside to try the dish.

“It’s re­ally good,” she said, her mouth full, smil­ing at Sarr. “Re­ally, re­ally good.”

Film­maker Tuleka Prah, right, films chef Touty Sarr, as she pre­pares thiebou die­une, a tra­di­tional Sene­galese dish, in Ngaparou, Sene­gal. Prah was in the West African na­tion to doc­u­ment its most pop­u­lar dishes as part of My African Food Map, a blog and film ar­chive.

Thiebou die­une is a dish of spiced rice, ten­der veg­eta­bles and fish.

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